Did you test episode one and two of the DIY-Massage blog? And did you wonder how it is possible to go so deep with so little touch? To create so deep relaxation and trust? The differences in between a “proper” massage (that most horses like as well, especially when tensions are released) and the lightness of touch used here? 

When I was first working with one of Frauke’s horses, we were talking about different effects that touch can have on the equine body. For me personally, it was important to understand the “magic” behind the relaxation we witness when treating a horse like this.

Therefore, I would like to invite you to dig a little deeper into some scientific insights. Especially her summary  about the Insights into the C-Fiber touch system are extremly exiting for everybody who is involved in body work, energetic healing and light touching, but too for each horse owner.

As usual, we are happy for your questions, feedback and ideas! Enjoy!

Allogrooming in between horse and human. This young Lady preferred to be rewarded by touch and always demanded payment after work.

The neurobiological bases for the relaxing effects of massage for horses.

by Frauke Musial

The relaxing and hedonic effects of massage are appreciated by many of us humans. Scientifically, massage and related forms of manual therapies have proven relaxing effects in humans, even for rather severe clinical conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder [1].

But how about our four legged companions, horses?

Horses groom each other standing head to tail and chewing carefully specific body parts of their grooming partner, such as the withers, mane, neck, back, and the lower back. This behavior surely represents necessary coat care, but it is common understanding that grooming has basic social functions, just like it is well established for primates (including the human primate). The psychobiological effects of “mutual” or “allo” -grooming are related to sensing (the somatosensory system) and touching (tactile perception) (for overview see “chapter 11 – Tactile perception of the horse”; “The Mind of the Horse [2]). The preferred grooming sites between horses, but also when the grooming partner is a human, are the withers, the neck, and the croup [3].

Moreover, massage (scratching/rubbing) delivered by humans induced signs of relaxation in the horses and was associated with a reduction in heart rate, which continued even after the massage ended [3]. In conclusion, massage and grooming seem to have hedonic qualities for horses which results in stress reduction. The authors also suggest that massage can be used for calming horses in minor to medium stressful situations.

Even though the number of studies investigating equine massage is still limited, there is possibly more to its effect than just relaxation. Using a well established experimental pain procedure, Sullivan, Hill and Haussler [4] tested the effect of massage and other interventions in healthy horses. As a result, massage as well as chiropractic treatment increased the pain threshold for the experimental pain stimulus. Thus, the horses were less sensitive to this type of pain. These results are insofar interesting as they indicate a more specific effect of massage on pain beyond its generally relaxing and stress reducing effects. The fact that the study participants were apparently healthy and pain free horses emphasizes the relevance of the effect.

A more recent study of Kowalik and co-workers [5] points to the practical aspects of the stress reducing effects of equine massage. They investigated the effects of relaxing massage on heart rate and heart rate variability in purebred Arabian racehorses during their first racing season. The number of included horses was with 72 remarkably high. It should be noted, that this was also not a clinical study as all horses were considered to be in good health, and not only that, these horses were highly trained athletes.

The massage protocol was quite elaborate and lasted between 25-30 min. Massage was applied 3 days a week throughout the whole racing season. The elements of the massage intervention were i) lying on hands in the beginning with the aim to connect to the horse, then followed by ii) friction, iii) petrissage, iv) shaking and v) other elements of classical massage. These movements are supposed to loosen muscles, tendons, and ligaments, and to increase blood flow. Several areas such as the neck, the scapula, forearm and back, as well as the buttocks were treated. The results indicated that the horses receiving massage were generally more relaxed and calm throughout the season. Moreover, and possibly most relevant to their owners, the horses receiving massage showed better race performance records [5].

As exciting as these results are, there is a relevant limitation to the interpretation of the study: There was no other control group beyond the untreated group. Therefore, it is not possible to say, whether the effects of massage were due to the massage itself and thus specific to the intervention, or whether they are the result of the extra quality time spend with the horse. Nonetheless, the results stand as they are and there is reason to believe, that the effects of massage are specific to the method, and mediated through a particular neural mechanism, the C-fiber touch system.

Cranio-sacral treatment of the horses lower jaw. Celina’s touch is minimal, barely touching the surface of the skin.

It is especially the research group around Francis McGlone and colleagues [6] who investigated the biological mechanism behind the relaxing and anxiety reducing effects of massage therapy and related techniques for humans.

The authors describe a distinct system of nerve cells (neurons), the so called C-fiber touch system, which is specific for pleasant touch. If you will, this system represents a measurement instrument of the nervous system for soft and pleasant touch. This specific C-fiber touch system has long been known from animal studies, where the characteristic sensors are usually located at the base of the hairs in the skin. In addition, adequate stimulation of these specialized nerve fibers, such as stroking, poking, gentle rubbing of the skin leads to the release of the hormone Oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone known to mediate affective/emotional bonding, e.g. between mother and child [6-10]. In conclusion, this part of the nervous system makes us enjoy to be caressed and petted, and it surely plays a role for the observation, that touch related therapies, such as massage, make us feel good.

The identification of the “CT system” is exciting! This pathway reaches brain structures that are involved in many emotion-related functional contexts, which fits well with the observation in humans that massage and related interventions often induce strong feelings [11]. We can only speculate about the role this neurophysiological system plays in social animals, however McGlone and colleagues [6] argue very conclusively in their ‘affective touch hypothesis’ that the CT system is the neuronal basis for positive emotions and the experience of pleasure through touch. If we accept this conclusion, we also have to accept that massage and related therapies have specific neurophysiological effects as they build upon the fundamental and evolutionary determined need of social animals for skin-to-skin contact with conspecifics.

What do these rather abstract scientific findings mean for us as riders, equine therapists, every person that handles horses? The above described stress relieving, relaxing effects of grooming between horses but also through human handlers such as in the massage therapy example [5] are based upon a physiological necessity of the horse as a social animal. Skin to skin contact, mutual grooming, and social coat care are fundamental basic needs for horses. If they are kept isolated without the possibility to fill these needs, they suffer! Fortunately, awareness of the fact that horses are social animals has increased over the last decades and the housing conditions of our four legged companions have substantially improved for many of them. Moreover, these scientific findings have even more implications for us in our self-identification as equestrians: If you encounter your horse, any horse, wait for him to make contact first (e.g. with a hand you stretch out), let you be touched by him. Then, scratch them in their most favorite places (especially at the withers, mane, neck). Technically, you are very likely to induce a relaxation response in the horse (and almost certainly, reciprocally in yourself as well). Beyond that, the physiological reaction to this “allo-grooming” situation will establish and/or deepen the bond between you and the horse. If your horse wants to groom back, allow him to do so (carefully, of course). There is no better evidence for a connection, a bond between you and your equine companion, than if he trusts you so much that he wants to give back what he is feeling!

Scientific references

1. Sherman, K.J., et al., Effectiveness of therapeutic massage for generalized anxiety disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Depress Anxiety, 2010. 27(5): p. 441-50.

2. Leblanc, M.-A., The mind of the horse – An introduction to equine cognition. 2013, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard University Press. 440.

3. McBride, S.D., A. Hemmings, and K. Robinson, A preliminary study on the effect of massage to reduce stress in the horse. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 2004. 24(2): p. 76-81.

4. Sullivan, K.A., A.E. Hill, and K.K. Haussler, The effects of chiropractic, massage and phenylbutazone on spinal mechanical nociceptive thresholds in horses without clinical signs. Equine Vet J, 2008. 40(1): p. 14-20.

5. Kowalik, S., et al., The effect of relaxing massage on heart rate and heart rate variability in purebred Arabian racehorses. Anim Sci J, 2017. 88(4): p. 669-677.

6. McGlone, F., J. Wessberg, and H. Olausson, Discriminative and affective touch: sensing and feeling. Neuron, 2014. 82(4): p. 737-55.

7. McGlone, F., et al., Discriminative touch and emotional touch. Can J Exp Psychol, 2007. 61(3): p. 173-83.

8. Walker, S.C., et al., C-tactile afferents: Cutaneous mediators of oxytocin release during affiliative tactile interactions? Neuropeptides, 2017. 64: p. 27-38.

9. Walker, S.C., et al., Vicarious ratings of social touch reflect the anatomical distribution & velocity tuning of C-tactile afferents: A hedonic homunculus?Behav Brain Res, 2017. 320: p. 91-96.

10. Abraira, V.E. and D.D. Ginty, The sensory neurons of touch. Neuron, 2013. 79(4): p. 618-39.

11. Musial, F. and T. Weiss, The healing power of touch: the specificity of the ‘unspecific’ effects of massage. Forsch Komplementmed, 2014. 21(5): p. 282-3.